In one of the most representative stories of Tom Barbash’s new collection Stay Up With Me, the protagonist’s marriage is falling apart. Every year on the eve of Thanksgiving, Timkin and Amy welcome dozens of guests to their three-bedroom, eighth-floor apartment on West Seventy-Seventh Street between Central Park West and Columbus, the block on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where the cloud-size balloons of cartoon characters for the Macy’s Day Parade are inflated before the big day. This year will be no different: the couple’s annual Balloon Night party is on schedule. Except she’s just left him—two nights before. Still, Timkin decides there’s no reason to call the party or tell their guests that Amy has walked out. He goes on with the celebration while pretending his wife’s out of town on a brief last-minute business trip. He makes his guests, and himself along the way, believe that Amy will be back the next day, just in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Timkin trusts he can pull this off and put all the loose parts of his former life back together. Can he?
The characters that inhabit the moving and sad and ultimately funny and hopeful 13 stories included in Stay Up With Me are usually stricken with grief and loss. Barbash confesses they can be obsessive at times but defines them as “emotionally resourceful. Sometimes they might not make good choices but they make the choices that they need to get through a difficult situation.”
Barbash is drawn to the most complicated moments in our lives when we are not quite ourselves, when we are under the stress of trying, sometimes too hard, to hold on to something, or somebody, that doesn’t exist anymore or is not coming back, either a late parent (“The Women”), a sibling who died in a car accident (“Howling at the Moon”), or a marriage that is slipping away before our eyes (“The Break,” “Balloon Night”).
Barbash’s characters are yearning to connect with one another and often fail to, or do connect, albeit with unexpected results. In “Somebody’s Son,” a lonely, young and inexperienced realtor tries to trick an old couple into selling their house in the Adirondacks by pretending to develop a filial relationship with them, only to find out, later, that he’s the one who’s been emotionally tricked. In “The Women,” the protagonist’s mother has just died, suddenly turning his father into a “desirable real state, a handsome fifty-eight-year-old with money.” As the protagonist struggles to cope with his mother’s death and his father’s unexpected transformation into a rising star of the Upper West Side’s dating scene, he unexpectedly finds the hope of love, in one of the most moving moments of the whole collection.
“The person that they (the characters) end up connecting with often surprises them. In the final story (The Women) the son connects in some way with his father but... the person he (really) connects with is unexpected,” says Barbash. “There’s a lot of obsession in a number of the stories.” Often the characters are “trying to keep something that they love alive, someone who’s died or a relationship that’s over in their lives. A lot of the characters work toward it to sustain it, sometimes in comical ways. There are a lot of people that haven’t let go of things....I happen to sort of understand and empathize with people who are tying to hold on to something they love, and I love that part of my characters.”
In Barbash’s stories, the places where his characters’ emotional struggles occur are as important as the struggles themselves.
Shortly after college, Barbash, who’s also the author of the nonfiction book On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, and 9/11: A Story of Loss and Renewal and a 2002 novel The Last Good Chance, worked as a newspaper reporter in a small town in upstate New York. This is a period, and a place, that has informed his writing since. But while some of his first stories, even his début novel and two of the most stunning stories in Stay Up with Me – “Somebody’s Son” and “Paris” – take place in upstate New York, what makes this new collection so distinctive is Barbash’s successful appropriation of the Upper West Side as his own literary realm.
No other writer has written about that part of the world the way he does. “It took me a while to actually start writing about the Upper West Side,” says Barbash, who grew up in that part of Manhattan but now lives on the West Coast—he teaches in the MFA Program at California College of the Arts—“and once I did there was this amazing comfort of something that’s so familiar....In the same way that you can have a small town from Kentucky or North Carolina, I wanted to treat the Upper West Side as the small town I grew up in.”
While the stories in the collection have previously appeared in a number of publications, from Tin House to McSweeney’s to One Story, among others, Barbash is excited to have a new book out more than a decade after the publication of The Last Good Chance. “I don’t think there are many good collections that have been written very quickly,” he says, “and I just think that it takes a while to get them.”
His next book, he says, won’t take that long. Barbash’s exploration of his hometown continues, as he’s now working on a novel he aims to release in 2015 set in the Dakota Building in 1980, the year of John Lennon’s assassination. While Lennon plays a role in the novel, he’s not the main protagonist but just another neighbor living in an emblematic place located five blocks away from where Barbash grew up. “It was an interesting time in New York. It was a very violent time—economically the city was still in dire straits,” he says. “Things got better pretty quickly after that, but there was no sign at that time that things were going to get better. The father (in the novel) is a talk show host who’s suffered a nervous breakdown a couple years before and lost his show. That was the golden era of talk shows, so I’m trying to capture that sort of scene. Everything about that period and that part of the world is important to me.
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho (Twitter: @aruizcamacho) is the recipient of the 2014 Dobie Paisano Fellowship sponsored by the Graduate School at The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Institute of Letters. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Poets & Writers and Etiqueta Negra.